A big part of my job is simply hearing people out and synthesizing what they tell me, and generally I'm confident in my ability to do that. But now and again, I come across concepts that seem to require an unusual amount of effort on my part just to wrap my mind around the basics.
It happened to me when the iPod came out, for example. Having been raised on records and tapes and eventually migrating to CDs (but sitting out the Napster revolution), I had trouble understanding how the purchasing and storing of digital music files actually worked. I was similarly perplexed when I started hearing about Twitter, which has a network and a purpose that I just couldn't grasp in the abstract. The cure in both cases was hands-on experience. Once I got an iTunes account, digital music files seemed a lot less mysterious to me. And as I started tweeting, I developed an appreciation for the news value and fun that the service delivers (although I admit that I still don't quite get the business model).
This is why I love hearing about a banker like Alan Lane, who you'll meet in this month's feature story. A Southern California banker, Lane is far from being an expert in newfangled digital currencies, but he is curious enough about their potential to have bought a handful of bitcoins. Will it lead to a full conversion away from dollars and credit cards? Will he start banking a whole new sector, a nascent industry of Bitcoin facilitators? Who knows? But I can't think of a better way to try to find out than to dive right in and observe the concept in action.
Wintrust Financial was similarly game when it came to experimenting with another big catchphrase in banking. Commercial customers had been hearing about the concept of the mobile wallet, but they hadn't yet seen it put into practice and couldn't yet gauge its potential. With their bankers equally stumped, Wintrust waded in. The mobile wallet it has been piloting has only one use now, which is to withdraw cash, by smartphone instead of a card, at ATMs outfitted with a simple software upgrade. It's pretty barebones stuff, but once you get it, you can imagine the expanded functionality that eventually might be applied.
P2P is another big buzzword in banking right now. Usually you hear it applied to the payments space, where peer-to-peer transfers of money are increasingly happening electronically instead of in cash. But P2P also describes a whole new category of lending, and we offer a window into a nonbank market that keeps getting bigger.
Of course, true appreciation of a concept means understanding not just how it works, but the implications it holds. And boy are there a lot of implications to consider when it comes to today's banking buzzwords—Bitcoin in particular.
That's why I asked Marc Hochstein to write our cover story. He's not the only financial journalist to dabble in digital currency, but nobody has been better at reporting on Bitcoin's potential as something more than a currency. After many conversations about the topic, he has me convinced that Bitcoin's maddening fluctuations in value and nefarious use in black markets are beside the point, or at least not the only point.
The blockchain (if you don't know what this is, don't worry, it's explained in our cover story) could someday provide a whole new way of transferring just about anything, be it a payment, a stock certificate or a loan document. And if that doesn't blow your mind, then I hope our story at least sets you straight on the basics.
Editor in Chief